Candy Factory in Shuttered Steel Mill Means Sweet Second Chance With AM-Dislocated Workers
GLASSPORT, Pa. (AP) _ Bars of chewy taffy are rolling off an assembly line at a once-shuttered mill that used to produce steel wire. Workers who used to wear hard hats now wear hats made of paper.
The new venture is the Eileen Gilday Candy Co., where laid-off steelworkers and other jobless people were hired to make confections in part of a 59-year- old mill that made steel products before it closed in 1983.
″I think everybody here realizes it’s a fresh start. I think we have a winner,″ said John Willard, 41, who worked for 14 years at the mill and is now a maintenance worker at the candy factory.
″It’s a new beginning. The outlook is bright. I love the challenge. I’m going down a different street,″ said Willard, a father of three.
The rebirth has its price. Jobs in the non-union candy factory pay $5 to $8.50 an hour, and Willard said his pay is 60 percent less than his mill salary. But it’s better than the alternative - no work at all.
The candy company opened in April in a brown brick building that formerly housed the cafeteria and the research and payroll departments of the Copperweld Corp. Copperweld, which had run the 13-acre site since 1927, once employed 1,000 workers making coils of wire.
Copperweld blamed cheap foreign imports when it closed the mill in 1983.
For the owners of Eileen Gilday Candy, the new start is a risk.
The president is Robert Fortunato, 57, a former group manager with Beatrice Corp. and the former president of the D.L. Clark Candy Co., makers of the Clark and Zagnut bars. The new company is named after his wife, Eileen Gilday Fortunato, who is a vice president.
Together, they own 62 percent of the company. Fortunato re-mortgaged his house, exhausted his savings and borrowed heavily to start the business.
″My house was paid for. I had two luxury cars paid for. I had 3,000 shares of Beatrice stock, $100,000 in the bank and seven children raised. Now, I’m broke. I have to work 18 hours a day. But it’s a fresh start,″ Fortunato said.
The candy factory sits in an industrial park developed on the old mill site. It is located in Glassport, a blue-collar town of 6,242 residents located 17 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.
The factory makes Irish taffy in flavors of cherry, grape, banana, chocolate, vanilla and watermelon. The basic bar sells for a dime, and Fortunato says he has enough orders to show a profit for September, the first month he will be in the black. His eventual goal is to hit $10 million in annual gross sales.
″Right now, we’re struggling to get this thing going. We’re trying to establish a national brand,″ Fortunato said.
The factory is more than a steel mill in a new wrapper. The modern assembly line, which features $198,000 worth of candy-wrapping machinery, sits on a mint green floor. Hallways are painted beige, decorated with soft lights and adorned with floral paintings.
″We don’t want the employees to think iron and steel. We want them to think food, flowers and butterflies,″ Fortunato said.
Each candy box is stamped ″American made - American owned.″
When the factory opened, 800 people applied for 40 jobs. They were hired under the federal Job Training Partnership Act, which pays half the salaries for three to six months. The program is designed to hire dislocated and disadvantaged workers.
″This is a second chance for the community, the workers and the owners,″ said Randolph Brockington, deputy director of federal programs in Allegheny County.
Those hired were laid-off steelworkers, machinists, foundry workers and other jobless workers.
Jo Ann Levdansky, 33, searched for work for two years after losing her job of 11 years in the metallurgical department of USX Corp.’s Irvin Works. At one point, she was filling out 45 job applications a week.
″In the past two years, I applied for 1,035 jobs. There was nothing left,″ she said.
As the company’s executive coordinator, she earns $15,000 a year, about half of what she earned in the steel mill. But she’s thrilled.
″I thought I died and went to heaven - finally,″ she said. ″It is a new beginning for me because I was off so long. I tried everything possible to get a job.″
End Adv Mon AMs Sept. 15